Dear Friends

  • Richard Ingebretsen in Salt Lake City

    Cindy Wehling photo
  • Bill McDonald at his ranch outside Douglas, Ariz.

    John Robert Miller photo

A "genius" in Arizona

Composers, artists, writers and historians have all won those coveted John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur "genius' grants, but Bill McDonald, 46, is the first rancher to receive a hefty $285,000 for his efforts to preserve huge stretches of undeveloped land in southern Arizona.

McDonald, along with other ranchers, such as Wendy and Warner Glenn and Drum Hadley, helped found the nonprofit Malpai Borderlands Group near Douglas, Ariz., in 1994. Their aim was to cooperate with conservation groups and the federal government to care for the land and its wildlife while continuing to ranch in responsible ways.

McDonald's phrase for the collaborative approach: building a radical center.

Spreading the word June 1 of the wonderful "no strings attached" grant, Wendy Glenn said, "This is a perfect award, for without Bill there would be no group." McDonald, a long drink of water at 6 foot 8 inches, has fit in his proselytizing about the consensus approach with working for wages at his family's ranch. His wife, Mary, does the books for the business; the couple has a daughter, Sarah, who just graduated from the eighth grade.

Big battles in Salt Lake

The last time we visited Salt Lake City, it was a quiet, almost somnolent, town. Today, it thunders. The approach from the south via Interstate 15 takes you over a route that's more like a carnival ride than a road. The northbound lanes are defined by a high noise barrier on one side and concrete bumpers on the other. Between them, they define a width that would be a generous single lane if the thrifty folks at the Utah Department of Transportation hadn't striped it down the center and turned it into two lanes. Drivers have adapted - they drive as quickly as if they were in legitimate highway lanes, but use their horns more.

Once you manage to get off I-15 - not all exits are closed yet - the speed slows but the game stays the same. A street that's open at 8 a.m. may be closed by noon. So the wide rights-of-way Brigham Young designed for oxcarts are being put to new use by motorists who suddenly find themselves in an urban box canyon.

We were in Salt Lake City on June 6 for HCN's spring board meeting, but found ourselves elbowed aside by much larger forces. Our downtown hotel, the Peery, was home base to the Indiana branch of the Southern Baptists. The front desk was piled high with their tabloid (they know how to market) and the lobby was filled with men in dark suits and women in prim blue jackets and long skirts.

Across the street, at the Doubletree Hotel, staff member Paul Larmer and spouse, Lisa Cook, were waiting for the Bulls basketball team to walk by on its way to play the Jazz. In the old Salt Lake City, they might have had to cope with a polite young Mormon missionary. But this is the new Salt Lake, and the woman next to them quickly learned that while Paul sings in his church choir, Lisa does not. So she volunteered advice, in the way some religious people will: "Your relationship with God is the most important thing in your life."

But before the conversation could go much further, Michael Jordan and the team began filing by and the woman turned from guru to seeker. "What are their names? My husband will be thrilled when I tell him who I saw!"

Down the street, staffer Dustin Solberg was also caught up by the new Salt Lake City. His search for new footwear led him to a pair of Doc Martens when he learned that the once-hip brogans have become the shoes of choice for globe-trotting Mormon missionaries.

These shoes, with their allegedly "tougher-than-Vibram soles," may be the real reason 13,000 Southern Baptists chose to hold their annual convention in the heart of Zion. Thanks to the Doc Martens, LDS missionaries are covering more miles than ever, and the LDS church grows at an astounding rate. There are still more Southern Baptists than Mormons, but to prevent trend from becoming destiny, the Southern Baptists launched their invasion.

Their convention is simply another sign of the city's increasing diversity. The day before the HCN meeting, a new newspaper hit Brigham Young's wide streets. The Salt Lake Observer is a fortnightly broadsheet with a bold design, strong financing and little desire to sing in the traditional Utah choir. It is modeled on the pink-sheeted New York Observer and its headlines included "Bible Belt Tightens Around Salt Lake City" and "Party "Wing Nuts' Rattle GOP Machine." The paper is aimed at the new and upscale residents the Wasatch Front's boom has attracted. The editor is Karl Cates and he can be reached at 801/355-4333.

HCN's board gets together

Despite the roadblocks, despite all that jazz and bull, and despite the religious reformation being played out around us, High Country News managed to hold a board meeting. But even there we couldn't escape location. Dr. Richard Ingebretsen, a 40-year-old Salt Lake City native and a devout Mormon, was our luncheon speaker.

Richard is a real doctor, rather than a Ph.D. He works in emergency rooms and after his talk, he went off to man a clinic he founded for Salt Lake City's poor and homeless and uninsured.

A few years ago, Richard and a few friends decided that the West would be better off if Lake Powell were turned back into Glen Canyon. His inspiration was a trip he took to the already-doomed canyon as a young Boy Scout.

Despite the task he has undertaken, Richard does not overwhelm you. He is of average height, sporting neatly combed brown hair and the room's only tie. His talk was consistent with his demeanor. He told us about an emergency room colleague who had just learned of Richard's Drain Powell campaign. "Why would you want to do such a stupid thing?" the colleague asked. "Because," Richard replied, "I dropped a watch there once and I want to get it back." That set the stage, Richard said, for a good conversation.

There were clearly a few around the table who had a lot in common with Richard's ER colleague. But while you can dislike Richard's ideas, you can't dislike him. He has a genius for disarming opponents. Among those he most admires are Glen Canyon Dam's creator, Floyd Dominy, and its archenemy, David Brower. Dominy headed the Bureau of Reclamation while Glen Canyon Dam was being built, and Brower headed the Sierra Club during the same period.

By blood and culture, Richard should be closer to Dominy than to Brower. Reclamation is identified with Mormonism, and members of the LDS Church are a disproportionately large part of the BuRec's workforce.

And yet Richard has hurled himself at the physical and legal structure that made the West, and especially Zion, bloom with crops and hum with hydroelectricity. As one HCN board member pointed out: You can't just talk about tearing down Glen Canyon Dam. It is part of a web of dams, hydropower and irrigation projects.

Richard is a revolutionary who first had just an idea, and now has a fledgling organization with a Web site, a very small staff and 6,500 members. But he is not your Fidel Castro type of revolutionary, and he told us that he gets on well with Dominy. On one visit, Dominy even sketched a plan for draining Lake Powell. Don't try to drill out the tough concrete plugging the old bypass tunnels, ordered Dominy. Instead, drill the new bypass tunnel into the rock wall of the canyon, allowing the water to flow around the dam.

So Dominy gave Richard the engineering information he will need, and Dominy's old enemy, David Brower, gave Richard a political boost by convincing the Sierra Club to back the draining of the lake.

Richard may have come away from his meetings with Dominy and Brower with something more than a signed sketch on a napkin and a Sierra Club resolution. Despite his genuine modesty, he may have come away thinking that he can do in the 21st century what Brower couldn't do in the 20th century: Save Glen Canyon by tearing down what Dominy built.

Back in HCN's meeting room, his talk was initially striking for its style. You don't often hear firebrands talk of how much they admire and even love those who stand in their paths.

But toward the end of his talk, Richard was overtaken by his mission. It was as if, in that bright room in the Peery Hotel, he was understanding, for the first time, the arrogance of the men and institutions who erected Glen Canyon Dam and blocked the Colorado River's flow of water and sediment and toxic substances.

The arrogance, he told us, is not just of the past. Richard said he is bewildered by those who today believe that the question of the dam's demise won't arise for 250 to 700 years - the time it will take to fill Lake Powell with sediment.

"The useful life of that dam isn't its physical life; it is its political life," he said. "And that political life is already crumbling." The laws that built Glen Canyon Dam won't be operative in 700 years. "What water laws do we obey today that date back to the 1300s?"

Glen Canyon Dam, Richard said, was a creature of its times, and those times are past. The question is: What do we now do with this long-lived relict, with this unwanted and increasingly messy gift from the past? To answer that question, his Glen Canyon Institute has undertaken to prepare a citizens' environmental analysis. The first contract, on sediment, he said, has just been signed.

Wild for wilderness

Intern Taffeta Elliott missed the board meeting because she chose to attend a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing held in Grand Junction, Colo. The subject was the Colorado Bureau of Land Management's decision to look again at the wilderness characteristics of certain roadless lands.

Western Colorado has always been a place where resistance to environmental initiatives and federal agencies could be taken for granted. So in addition to the hearing's prime mover, Colorado Republican Rep. Scott McInnis, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard showed up to watch the BLM get roasted and environmentalists routed.

That's not what happened, Taffeta reports. The Colorado Environmental Coalition's grassroots organizing and photographer John Fielder's Friday evening slide show fired up the environmentalists.

Outside the hearing hall on Saturday morning, environmentalists gave away bagels on one side of the street while the multiple users handed out doughnuts. Health-wise, it was a rout.

Inside, environmentalists, many of them in their 40s and 50s, out-clapped the opposition. The largest applause went to Art Goodtimes, a poet, a county commissioner, and a man with a long scraggly beard who dresses as if he were still in the 1960s and Haight-Ashbury.

Art earned their applause by a reasoned but firm defense of BLM policy. And instead of a cringing bureaucrat, McInnis ran into the firm and knowledgeable state director of the BLM, Ann Morgan.

There's a lot about the New West we don't like. But some of it is just fine.

- Ed Marston for the staff

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